Smoky Lake Signal – July 17, 2018 HAD: Farm workers benefit from increased protections

By Colin Piquette, MLA for Athabasca-Sturgeon-Redwater

Life is getting better for the thousands of Albertans who are paid employees on farms and ranches – and for the farmers and ranchers who employ them.

But for decades, the PC government had ignored the need to modernize the rules to reflect the realities of work in Alberta’s agricultural sector, and too many workers were left without the same protections the rest of Albertans take for granted in their workplace. Prior to the Enhanced Protection for Farm and Ranch Workers Act, Alberta was the only province without comprehensive occupational health and safety laws for farm and ranch workers, a state of affairs that no responsible government could allow to continue.

There was a lot of controversy surrounding these long overdue changes. Who can possibly forget the furor over Bill 6?  Sparked at the very beginning by admittedly confusing and even misleading statements by some WCB and OHS employees, the opposition did everything they could to exploit these initial missteps for maximum fear and consternation long after they themselves knew better.  As a person who grew up on the farm myself and as a farm insurance agent until my election in 2015 I know that although the great majority of farmers have always striven to work safely, there has always been room for the kinds of improvements only good legislation can bring. That’s why every other province has done just that, most of them decades ago.

To be clear, none of their dire prophecies have come to pass. Both family and non-family farms continue to survive and to thrive (depending on weather and commodity prices of course!)  in Athabasca, Thorhild Smoky Lake, and Sturgeon counties, and the rest of the province.  

That’s why I’m so pleased to see that my colleagues Labour Minister Christina Gray and Agriculture Minister Oneil Carlier have been able to work with industry stakeholders, and in consultation with Albertans, to make sure workers get the protections they deserve while still recognizing the legitimate concerns of farm operators and continuing to repect the unique multigenerational family farm culture.

This didn’t change when the act came into effect Jan. 1, 2016. What did change is that since then more than 1,860 paid, non-family agriculture workers have had their workers’ compensation claims accepted. They’re getting the supports they need, when they need them, if they’re injured on the job. All workers deserve these kinds of protections, and so do the families that depend on them.

Our government promised that any changes we made to rules on farms and ranches would be made alongside those in the industry and only with the input of all Albertans. And that’s exactly what we did. Over the past two years, stakeholders all across the province and everyday Albertans have been part of the discussions.

The technical rules for workplace health and safety, which come into effect Dec. 1 this year, are common-sense solutions developed in extensive collaboration with farmers and ranchers and with the consensus of industry stakeholders.

The result is that we’re able to enshrine in regulation the strong culture of farm safety that the vast majority already practice, and with the assistance of our ag partners we’re able to support producers with a grant project to help in establishing health and safety practices and procedures that will make their farms and ranchers safer for their workers and their families. A lot of hard work to be sure, but Albertans have never shirked hard work in a good cause and we’re not about to start now!

Honourable Christina Gray, Minister of Labour – Redwater and area tour – July 24, 2017

On July 24th I was honoured to have the Honourable Christina Gray, Minister of Labour and Democratic Renewal visit our riding as part of a Northern Alberta tour. Minister Gray toured the Northwest Refinery and dropped into Redwater to speak with Mayor and Council. MLA Jessica Littlewood for Fort Saskatchewan -Vegreville also came along for the visit and it was wonderful to see her as well.  It was a great day- despite the awful weather!

The NWR Partnership is presently  completing construction of Phase I and is in a testing/monitoring phase prior to start-up later this year. As a matter of fact two of the boilers were live and producing steam the day we went. Great to see the incredible progress they’ve made over the past couple of years.This project has been a driving force in construction activity in the Industrial Heartland over the past several years, providing employment for 5,000 – 7,000 people.

They are now starting to work towards approvals for Phase II which will once again drive construction in the area. Minister Gray had the opportunity to meet with Ian McGregor and other plant officials before touring the refinery itself.  The tradespeople she met were great advocates for the project, and the pride they have in being part of it shone through. 

Minister Gray had originally planned to visit Agrium as well but unfortunately this did not work out. Agrium is one of the largest fertilizer complexes in North America, and the largest private sector employer in Sturgeon County.

I was very proud of the reception the Minister and MLA Littlewood received from the Town of Redwater. Mayor Smith and Council have a special talent for being completely forthright in their concerns while never failing to be the epitome of courtesy and respect. They made a great pitch for Phase II, but also expressed their questions and concerns on such issues as electoral boundaries and rural representation, labour legislation, nonprofit fundraising. 

Later that day I returned the favour and accompanied the Minister and MLA Littlewood to Lamont where we met with a large group of municipal officials. Once again, an excellent and frank discussion was held on such issues as rural depopulation, Bill 17, senior supports, among many others.

Minister Gray showed herself to be an adept and sympathetic listener, but also  well informed on all aspects of government policy. I know she found this tour to be a valuable exercise and the participants seemed to agree. I am quite sure though that we all agree that she is welcome back any time!

 

Bill to modernize Alberta’s workplace legislation

Proposed amendments to Alberta’s Employment Standards Code and Labour Relations Code would support family-friendly workplaces and bring Alberta’s standards into alignment with the rest of Canada.

Lethbridge mom Amanda Jenson was fired from her job because she needed to care for her son who has leukemia.

If passed, the Fair and Family-friendly Workplaces Act, would ensure Alberta has modern and fair labour laws that protect the rights of Albertans and meet the needs of today’s workplaces.

“All Albertans deserve to be treated fairly at work. Modern and balanced workplace laws protect the rights of Albertans, support their families and help businesses stay competitive. Updates and improvements to Alberta’s labour legislation are long overdue. The proposed changes ensure Albertans have the same rights as other Canadians while also supporting a strong economy. They respect the important balance of our labour relations system and will make our standards more family-friendly.”

Christina Gray, Minister of Labour

“I listened carefully to the ideas and perspectives of both employers and employee groups during the course of this review. Drawing on my years of professional experience in this area, I was pleased to present the government with advice and workable options to modernize Alberta’s labour relations system and bring it into alignment with the Canadian mainstream.”

Andrew Sims, QC, labour relations expert

“I was fired from my job after I requested time off to care for my seven-year-old son when he was diagnosed with cancer. I didn’t qualify for job-protected leave and it has made this difficult time much harder for me and my family. I want to thank the Government of Alberta for introducing changes that will help ensure this doesn’t happen to any other parent in Alberta.”

Amanda Jensen, Lethbridge mom

If passed, the amendments would:

  • Improve and align maternity leave and compassionate care leave with federal policies:
    • Maternity leave would be extended by one week to 16 weeks.
    • Parental leave would be extended from 37 weeks to 52 weeks.
    • Compassionate care leave would be extended from eight weeks to 27 weeks.
  • Guarantee job protection for new unpaid leaves, including:
  • Long-term Illness and Injury Leave (16 weeks)
  • Personal and Family Responsibility Leave (five days)
  • Bereavement Leave (three days)
  • Domestic Violence Leave (10 days)
  • Citizenship Ceremony Leave (half-day)
  • Critical Illness of a Child Leave (36 weeks)
  • Death or Disappearance of a Child (52 weeks when a child disappeared as a result of a crime, or up to 104 weeks when a child died as a result of a crime)
  • Set the eligibility period for all job-protected leaves at 90 days of employment.
  • Remove a provision that allowed employers to apply for a permit to pay persons with disabilities less than minimum wage.
  • Raise the minimum age of work to 13 in accordance with the International Labour Organization’s Convention 138 on youth employment.
  • Modernize existing standards such as overtime, vacation pay and termination notice.
  • Introduce stronger enforcement, including administrative penalties when warranted, for contraventions of the Employment Standards Code.
  • Introduce access to first contract arbitration to assist parties in successful bargaining and improved dispute resolution methods under the Labour Relations Code.
  • Simplify union certification and decertification processes.
  • Expand essential services to continuing care operations.
  • Enhance the rights of waged, non-family farm and ranch workers while protecting the family-farm way of life.

The proposed changes are the result of previous government reviews as well as broad consultations with Albertans, employers, business organizations, labour organizations, municipalities, academics, and advocacy groups. More than 7,000 submissions were received.

Following recommendations from two technical working groups studying employment standards and labour relations legislation for farms and ranches, the bill also includes amendments that would apply some employment standards and labour relations provisions to waged, non-family workers in Alberta’s agricultural sector.

The proposed changes would have no effect on youth activities such as 4-H, casual work or branding parties and would ensure friends and neighbours can continue helping each other as they have done for generations.

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